Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Champagne: How Champagne is made and the best champagne tours in Reims and Epernay

Musée de la Reddition and the Cathedral aside, this is really why people come to Reims. Champagne. Reims and Epernay, a small city about a twenty minute train ride away, are the capitals of bubbly.

Most people know how wine is made—the fermentation of grapes so that the sugar turns into alcohol. But how is Champagne made? It’s a wine, yes, but how does it end up carbonated? The short answer is with a lot of work.

Here’s the long version.

According to AOC regulations, only three grapes can be used to make champagne: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. Of these three grapes, the two Pinots are red-skinned grapes with white juice, whereas Chardonnay is a white-skinned grape with white juice.

Most champagne houses either own land or hold contracts in multiple appellations (different areas with different soil, amount of rain and sun exposure, resulting in a slightly different harvest with thus a slightly different flavor to the wine produced.) When the harvest comes, these grapes are picked and pressed as quickly as possible, so that the red-tinted skin from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier doesn’t have a change to “stain” the juice.

The juice is then shipped to the champagne house where it undergoes the first fermentation and turns into wine. At this point, the wine is still separated by appellation and by varietal (type of grape.) At this point, the cellarmaster tastes the various wines. Based on the quality of the produced wine, he’ll decide to make a millesimé (a vintage) or regular champagne.

He’ll choose various wines and blend them together to produce the champagne of that year that closely approximates the house style. (For example, Mumm champagne is said to be refined and creamy whereas Charles Cazanove is said to be fruitier.) If he is making a regular wine, this could also include wines from prior harvests—called reserve wine. For a millesimé, the cellarmaster has decided that this year’s harvest was exceptional enough that he will only use this year’s harvest. Thus, vintage champagne will carry the year of the harvest on the bottle.

The wine will be bottled along with a little extra sugar and yeast. It is then left to age in the cave for at least fifteen months for non-vintage champagne and at least three years for vintage champagne. Some champagne houses, especially the big ones, will age much longer than this. During this time, the wine undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle. Since the bottle is capped, there is no way for the carbon dioxide produced as a byproduct of the reaction to escape. Thus, it dissolves into the wine instead. The “bubbles” in champagne are the carbon dioxide coming out of solution upon the release of pressure and exposure to air.

This, however, leaves the wine maker with a problem. There is dead yeast in his bottle of wine--- and that’s pretty gross. Seriously, would you drink a bottle of champagne with that stuck to the side?

So, the champagne is then “riddled.” Originally done by hand and now done by machine, riddling means that a bottle of champagne is slowly turned from side to side and moved from a horizontal position to a vertical. This loosens the yeast from the side of the bottle and then it slides down into the neck. Before machinery, there was a person who then turned the bottle back upright and opened it, allowing the pressure to force the dead yeast out. However, this took a very long time and resulted in the loss of some champagne. Today, the very tip of the bottle is dipped in a chilling solution, causing the yeast (and a little bit of champagne) to freeze. When the bottle is opened, only the ice cube pops out. No mess!

Finally, before we put the cork in and send our champagne off to be sold, there is one final step. A small amount of still wine and sugar is added, called the liquor of dosage. This determines what type of champagne it is: extra brut (no sugar added), brut (6-10 grams added, replicating the amount of sugar in the grapes), sec (sweeter) and demi-sec (sweetest).

You will learn all of this if you go on one of the many champagne house tours. Mumm, Tattinger, Moet et Chandon, Veuve Cliquot, Dom Perignon, Pommery, etc--- they all have houses in either Reims or Epernay. Some require calling in advance and do much smaller groups (Mumm, Veuve, Ruinart) while others you can probably call the day of and still get in (Castellane, Charles Cazanove.) Essentially, the best way to guess? If you’ve heard of the champagne, you should call in advance.

However, this is not to say that the best tours are necessarily the ones where you call in advance. Or that the best tours are done by the houses that produce the best champagne. I went on three champagne tours: Mumm, Charles Cazanove and Castellane.

My recommendation overall is Castellane. Although it’s located in Epernay instead of Reims, I think it’s definitely worth the trip. (For those of you who don’t want to go to Epernay, Mumm gives a very complete, elegant and interesting tour.) At Castellane, actually see the factory where the champagne is paid, including the riddling machine, the labeling machine and the freezing vats. The guides (or at least mine) are also fantastic—they seem to know everything and don’t mind answering questions.

Their museum is also excellent, showing you the machines they used in prior centuries as well as a whole range of old bottle and advertisement designs. Plus, you can climb up the Castellane tower.

While it is an awful lot of stairs to get up that high, you get a wonderful view.

The tour is 8.50 and you get one glass of champagne at the end, with the possibility of buying other tastings. Additionally, it’s not one of the most well-known houses, so you can really just show up and there will be tour openings. Though, one thing to pay attention to: Castellane is not on the Avenue de Champagne like all the other houses. It’s on a little road just off to one side, but if you take the Avenue de Champagne and keep walking, you’ll eventually see the tower.

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